MANHATTAN — The noise Steven Sims made resembled that of air slowly releasing from a balloon, the Kansas wide receiver literally letting off steam following his team’s latest heartbreaking setback.
What prompted the dispirited response was the following question at his postgame media availability: What was Sims’ feeling the exact moment it became clear the Jayhawks’ best shot at defeating in-state rival Kansas State in a decade would come up short — and in the cruelest of ways, at that.
“Pssh,” Sims remarked quietly, pausing for a moment before completing his thought. "Defeat."
K-State 21, Kansas 17.
The Jayhawks haven’t won a game against the Wildcats nor a Big 12 road contest since the 2008 season, though they had a golden opportunity to break both of those skids Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. But with less than 30 seconds left, KU trailing by four yet stationed at the K-State 32-yard line, senior quarterback Peyton Bender lost his grip on a pass attempt, heaving his empty hand forward as the loose ball fell to his right side.
K-State defensive end Bronson Massie recovered the fumble, and the Wildcat offense assumed victory formation to finish off the team’s 10th consecutive victory in the Sunflower Showdown.
“It hurt. It hurt knowing there was nothing else we could do when they jumped on the ball,” Sims continued. “There’s nothing else we could do about it.”
KU (3-7, 1-6 Big 12) held a late lead following Bender’s 65-yard touchdown pass to Sims on the first play of the fourth quarter, but the Jayhawks couldn’t escape their own mistakes in what was a gaffe-filled affair for both sides.
Fifty-plus-yard runs by junior Khalil Herbert and freshman Pooka Williams on back-to-back plays in the team’s penultimate drive were wiped away by consecutive holding penalties, resulting in a punt that gave the Wildcats (4-6, 2-5) the ball at their own 40-yard line. Alex Barnes then converted a critical fourth-and-2 on a Wildcat-formation run to keep that drive alive and set up an eventual 21-yard rushing touchdown from quarterback Alex Barnes that put K-State up for good with 2:46 left to play.
Bender and the Jayhawks responded well, set up second-and-10 with a timeout at the time of his game-ending fumble. He said he was looking for Williams on a screen pass but added the ball “just slipped out" of his hands.
Typically an even-keeled figure — KU coach David Beaty recently called his quarterback “Steady Eddie” — Bender showed the pain of the mistake and the defeat in his postgame media availability. He looked at reporters through red eyes and spoke with an at times quivering voice.
“It hurts,” said Bender, who completed 21 of 34 passes for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Asked why he appears more emotional after this loss, Bender cited the nature of the rivalry.
“Game means a lot to a lot of people in the state of Kansas,” he said. “I thought we played good enough to win. It’s just extremely disappointing the way it ended.”
Beaty, who was fired last Sunday by first-year athletic director Jeff Long in a move effective at the end of the season, fell to 6-40 as the Jayhawks' coach. After the contest, Bender said the fourth-year coach pulled him aside and delivered an encouraging remark.
“He just said, ‘Don’t shoulder this one for too long,’ which is obviously going to be hard to do,” Bender said. “But we’ve got two more games left and we’ve got to make the most out of those opportunities.”
Bender’s mistake was far from the Jayhawks’ only gaffe. Others included:
• A dropped 33-yard touchdown reception by freshman Kwamie Lassiter on a drive that ended without points for KU;
• Apparent indecision in the final 20 seconds of the second quarter that cost the timeout-less Jayhawks a shot at either a 57-yard field goal attempt or an end-of-half Hail Mary;
• A facemask penalty against senior defensive tackle J.J. Holmes that aided a third-quarter Wildcat drive that eventually ended in a 2-yard scoring plow by Barnes;
• The back-to-back fourth-quarter holding penalties that wiped out the potential game-icing runs;
• And Mavin Saunders’ reaction to the second holding penalty, with the senior tight end picking up and attempting to hide the official’s flag between his feet in a bizarre sequence that resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Beaty stressed there is no one player to point a finger at for the self-inflicted nature of the defeat.
“That last play is certainly not the play that lost us the game,” Beaty said of Bender’s fumble. “There was a lot of other things that I can point to that probably kept us from being able to win it. But those guys will stay together and we’ll be ready to go next week against Oklahoma.”
Barnes paced K-State with a 22-carry, 117-yard performance that produced a pair of touchdowns, while Sims led all KU pass catchers with five receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown.
Back to the postgame scene, where Bender wasn’t the only emotional Jayhawk in a locker room with “a lot of tears,” as described by Beaty. But as he’s done since last Sunday’s news of his impending departure from the program broke, Beaty deflected two final questions Saturday about the personal significance of his latest defeat.
“It was a good game. I think it was entertaining until the very end,” Beaty said. “But from our standpoint, we got to win games man, and that’s why what happened this week happened. You’ve got to produce. That’s the way it works.”
As for whether Beaty sensed his players rallying behind him Saturday?
“I simply won’t allow that. It has nothing to do with me. Never was, never will,” Beaty responded. “But for them, for each other, I think that’s where the tears are."